Inmates sentenced to life sentences as juveniles have new hope
In the criminal justice system, prisoners become numbers. It’s a way to keep track, to maintain order, to establish control.
“You’re addressed by that number. You’re told to eat by that number. You go on your visits on that number,” said Tyrone Jones. “You become a number, and a number is just what it is: a number. It has no feeling. It has no emotion.”
“My number,” he said, “was F5637.”
For over four decades, Jones faced the likelihood of having to endure that bleak, no-name existence for the rest of his life. He had been convicted in May 1973 of first-degree murder in Philadelphia for the gang-related shooting death of Henry Harrison. Pennsylvania’s mandatory sentence for first- or second-degree murder – regardless of age – was life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Jones was 16 years old.
But June 25, 2012, brought a glimmer of hope for Jones and about 2,500 other inmates around the country who were serving mandatory life sentences for committing homicides as juveniles.
That was the day the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could not impose a mandatory sentence of life without parole on a homicide offender under the age of 18. Such a sentence, the court said, fails to take into consideration a juvenile offender’s lesser culpability because of a lack of maturity, and thus violates the Eighth Amendment’s protections against excessive punishment.
On Jan. 25, 2016, the Supreme Court ruled again, making its 2012 decision apply retroactively to inmates sentenced earlier.
On a calm day this fall, in the backyard of his sister’s home in a quiet western suburb of Philadelphia, Jones, now 60 years old and out on parole, recalled the day he stood before the judge as a teenager.
“When I stood in there and I heard the judge sentence me to life, I really didn’t understand what actually life meant,” he said.
Later, in prison, he still couldn’t comprehend it. “The first year: ‘Aw, I ain’t going to be here that long.’ Second year: ‘Aw, I ain’t going to be here.’ Third year: ‘Aw, three years ain’t nothing.’ Four years, then five, then 10, then 15, then 20, then 30 and then 40. Then finally 43.”
As he was being processed into prison, one question he was asked “set the whole tone” of his incarceration.
“The question they asked me,” Jones said, was: ‘Where do you want your body sent?’ ”
Jones was one of 514 so-called juvenile lifers in Pennsylvania – the most of any state – whose sentences were directly affected by Miller v. Alabama, the 2012 Supreme Court case, and Montgomery v. Louisiana, the 2016 case that established retroactivity.
After hearings last summer in which he was resentenced and granted parole, Jones is now a free man – one of the first six to be released in Pennsylvania.
Their cases mark the first time first- and second-degree murderers have been eligible for parole in Pennsylvania. Yet, as of Nov. 21, only 22 inmates had been resentenced in a process that could take three years to complete.
Some judges, district attorneys and defense lawyers say they are still unclear on what sentencing guidelines should be used, pending the outcome of a case before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
The Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling came in a case involving a 2003 homicide in Alabama in which Evan Miller, 14, and another youth, Colby Smith, beat Miller’s neighbor to death and burned the trailer he was inside. Miller was convicted of aggravated murder and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court decided that juveniles could not mandatorily be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
In his interview Jones employed two metaphors to describe his hope for freedom. Until the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision, “the light at the end of the tunnel was about that big,” he said, pinching his index finger and thumb together. “But when the Miller decision came down, it seemed like the flame was getting just a little bit bigger.”
Miller was an outgrowth of two other Supreme Court rulings.
In Roper v Simmons in 2005, the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty for children, and in Graham v Florida in 2010, the court blocked life without parole for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses. Both cases were based on emerging brain science that questioned juveniles’ culpability in a crime and asserted their greater likelihood to be rehabilitated as compared to adult criminals.
In Miller, the Supreme Court said: “Roper and Graham established that children are constitutionally different from adults for sentencing purposes. Their ‘lack of maturity’ and ‘underdeveloped sense of responsibility’ lead to recklessness, impulsivity and heedless risk-taking.” The court also said that “because a child’s character is not as ‘well formed as an adult’s, his traits are ‘less fixed’ … and his actions are less likely to be ‘evidence of irretrievable depravity.’ ”
Marsha Levick is co-founder of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, a nonprofit, public-interest law firm that works on juvenile legal issues around the country. Levick co-authored amicus briefs for the Roper, Graham and Miller cases, and served as co-counsel in the Montgomery case.
"really game changing" Marsha Levick, co-founder of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia
She said that in Miller, the Supreme Court was “recognizing that there were these developmental differences that had been identified through the research community.” That was “really game changing,” she said.
Though the court decided that juveniles could not mandatorily be sentenced to life without parole, its Miller decision did not ban the sentence outright. Instead of imposing a mandatory sentence, a trial judge could choose a sentence based on the circumstances surrounding a specific case.
The court said in Miller that a life-without-parole sentence should be imposed “only in the most rare and uncommon of circumstances,” Levick said. “Almost no one should get that sentence.” She said that, under Miller, a mandatory life sentence would be appropriate in circumstances the court defined as “permanent incorrigibility, irretrievable depravity or irredeemable corruption.”
Once the mandatory life sentences were determined to be illegal, the question was whether or not they would be applied retroactively. Were those sentenced before the Miller decision entitled to resentencing?
“Miller came down on June 12,” Jones said. “My direct appeal went straight to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on June 13, the next day, asking for relief.”
The State Legislature reacted to Miller by passing a law in October 2012 to define what sentences juveniles who commit murder thereafter would receive. For first-degree murder, those under 18 would receive a minimum of 35 years with a maximum of life, and those under 15 would receive a minimum of 25 years. For second-degree murder, those under 18 would receive a minimum of 30 years with a maximum of life, and those under 15 would receive a minimum of 20 years.
But the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in October 2013, in Commonwealth v Cunningham, that the Miller ruling did not apply to earlier cases.
That put Pennsylvania in the minority of the 28 states affected by Miller. Since the ruling, 14 states have enacted legislation to comply with Miller. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have banned juvenile life without parole altogether.
“[Pennsylvania] read the Supreme Court law wrong, they read sentencing trends across the country wrong, and they simply got it wrong,” said Brad Bridge, an attorney with the Defender Association of Philadelphia, who has been working on juvenile lifer cases since 2005 and is currently handling about 15 cases.
With Pennsylvania determining that Miller would not apply retroactively, the state’s juvenile lifers were stuck in a legal limbo.
Then the Supreme Court ruled this year in Montgomery v Louisiana, settling the question of retroactivity.
However, some Pennsylvania lawyers say the resentencing process in Pennsylvania is still murky. Bridge hopes to clarify the procedural guidelines in a case he is litigating in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Commonwealth v Batts II.
"Wow, pretty soon that’s going to be a thing of the past..." Tyrone Jones
Jones was on his way to the bathroom at the State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy when he got the news from a fellow inmate. Dazed by what he had just heard, Jones said he was almost unable to move.
“I was like halfway in the bathroom, halfway out. I just turned back around and stood there in the middle of the block and just looked at my cell, and I was like, ‘Wow, pretty soon that’s going to be a thing of the past, I’m not going to be there anymore.’ ”
Jones said that when he spoke to his attorneys, they said, “The next time we come up here to visit you, you’re coming with us.”
They came back for him on Sept. 1, 2016.
“As I’m walking out the hallway,” Jones said, “the big doors open and all my sisters, my brother-in-law, my cousins are all out there waiting for me. … Everybody was holding me, my sisters and my cousins and all them, because they ain’t seen me in years.”
Jones had skipped the prison’s breakfast in anticipation of his release.
His first meal as a free man: sausage, waffles and eggs.
John Pace is another Pennsylvania juvenile lifer who has a shot at freedom. After spending three decades in prison for a 1985 mugging-turned-murder he committed when he was 17, Pace was resentenced on Oct. 25 to 30 years to life. That makes him eligible for parole.
“The prospect of spending the rest of my life and prison scared the hell out of me,” Pace said in an email from inside SCI Graterford. “And this made me focus on improving myself and placing myself in the position to be successful when the opportunity presented itself.”
Pace said his plan after being paroled is to live with my sister for a year or so, then rent an apartment. “The very first thing I want to do is breath and allow myself to settle down and adjust to the changes.”
“Someone who makes a conscious choice to murder another human being should be held accountable.” Bobbi Jamriska, National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers
To many of the family members of victims of juvenile lifers, the Supreme Court’s decisions came as distressing news.
In the entrance way of Darryl Romig’s home in Allentown, the wall is filled with photos, clay angels and a tassel from an elementary school graduation – memorials to his daughter. “She lived a happy life. She was a happy little girl,” Romig said.
February 26, 2003. Twelve-year-old Danni Reese Romig had just gotten out of school. She was supposed to be grounded, but she used her charm to persuade her stepmother to let her go play in the park near their house.
She was supposed to come back at 5:30 for dinner. They were having her favorite, spaghetti.
She didn’t return. “Probably about 6:30, 7 o’clock, we called the Allentown Police Department and they sent an officer to the house,” Romig said. “He took a report, but he stood in our own doorway saying that ‘she ran away. She doesn’t want to come home.’ And I said, ‘Listen, that’s not my daughter. … She loves to be home. She’s never late for anything.’ ”
Romig said that soon a force of about two dozen police officers, a K-9 unit, a helicopter and students from the Allentown Business School (now known as Lehigh Valley College) descended on the area to search for his daughter.
In the early morning hours of the following day, Danni’s body was found 700 yards from her home. The body lay partly in water under a train trestle, on the bank of the Little Lehigh River. She had been raped and strangled.
Brian Bahr, 17 at the time, was convicted of her murder and sentenced to life in prison. Now he is up for resentencing under the new court ruling.
Romig recalled the night his daughter disappeared.
“When they came to the door they asked for a picture, I had a feeling something was wrong,” Romig said. “When they said they found her body, it’s just … I was so upset I put my hand through a solid oakwood door. … I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t feel anything for a while. It’s like my whole world just came to an end. I have two other kids, but she was my first. Burying your 12-year-old kid, it’s not easy.”
Romig said that Bahr had written a list of 25 things to do when he got a girl into the woods. Reports from the Allentown Morning Call said the list included items such as “1. Strip her bare. 2. Strip yourself … 20. Slow beat her to death for all pain you had in life.”
Romig said he was incensed that the state would even consider reducing Bahr’s sentence. Given the calculated brutality of Danni’s murder, he said his attorney thinks it is unlikely. Also, since Bahr went to prison in 2003, he has been sentenced to another life term for assaulting a prison guard at the SCI Dallas in 2007.
Earl Supplee, a Lehigh County public defender representing Bahr, said he would like to see his client receive a reduced sentence that is consistent with the Constitution, but he declined to say what a fair sentence would be. Bahr is awaiting the outcome of Commonwealth v. Batts II before moving ahead with his resentencing hearing.
Bobbi Jamriska is vice president of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers, an organization that connects victims’ family members to a support network. Like Romig, Jamriska lost a family member to a juvenile murderer.
“Someone who makes a conscious choice to murder another human being should be held accountable,” Jamriska said. “I don’t think you can say ‘Well, his brain wasn’t quite formed’ or ‘He didn’t realize what he was doing,’ or ‘He just made a mistake.’ I don’t think any of those hold up.”
Jamriska called Bahr “a sociopath” who “should never, ever be released to society.”
She said she had spoken with people who are back in counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of these rulings. She added that after receiving what they believed to be justice, they are now having to relive the past.
Romig said, “When we started hearing about that sentences are going to be turned over, first thing we’re thinking about is, ‘Well, now he’s not going to serve life. He’s going to get out eventually and he can do it to somebody else.’ It’s like all the wounds that were healed are being ripped back open.”
Jennifer Storm, director of the Pennsylvania Office of Victim Advocate, a state agency that provides services for crime victims, said her office surveyed its clients after Miller and found that 88 percent were strongly opposed to the ruling. She said their feelings ranged from betrayed to horrified. She, too, said victims’ families were experiencing PTSD.
“They’re having to deal with the reality,” Storm said, “that the person who killed their loved one is going to walk out of jail.”
“I always think of it in this manner: Would I want this person living next to me, would I feel comfortable?” Leo Dunn, chairman of the state Parole Board
After Miller came down, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections began preparing its juvenile lifer population for the possibility of release.
“It was pretty obvious to us that at some point the decision was going to be retroactive,” said John Wetzel, secretary of the department. “The brain science doesn’t change. The notion that somebody could be sentenced one day under one scheme and two days later because the law changed, under a different scheme, that situation is ripe for somebody to make it retroactive eventually.”
The department informed juvenile lifers how to file for relief under the Post-Conviction Relief Act, making them a priority for rehabilitation and reentry programs and helping them obtain documents like birth certificates and Social Security cards. This year, after the Montgomery decision, the department began holding focus groups with juvenile lifers to answer their pressing questions about what to do when they were released. The questions included: how do you write a resume, how do you interview for a job, how do you use a cell phone.
Wetzel has compared the inmates’ new lives to making a “Flintstones to Jetsons” transition. “There’s a sense of anxiety around the real challenges to a world that you don’t know anything about,” Wetzel said, adding that 323 of the state’s juvenile lifers have been in prison 20 or more years. The oldest is Joe Ligon, who has served 63 years for a February 1953 spree of stabbings in South Philadelphia, when he was 15. Two people were killed and several wounded.
Ann Schwartzman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, an organization that advocates on behalf of inmates, said juvenile lifers are also concerned about how to interact with the opposite sex.
“If you are incarcerated at the time you are 14, 15, 16, the relationship that you would have with another person would be very different than when you are 50, 55, 60, 65,” Schwartzman said.
Philadelphia has 301 juvenile lifers, more than any other county in Pennsylvania. In an interview, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said, “We have a specially assigned homicide prosecutor. All she handles is these cases. We have an investigator who’s assigned to assist her. We have a victim witness advocate who has to call and speak with the family members of all the deceased.”
Beginning with the oldest cases, Williams’ investigators have been looking at the circumstances surrounding the crimes, how the prisoners have behaved while inside, and other relevant factors in determining what new sentences should be. They also take into consideration the feelings of victims’ family members.
Williams said a victim‘s family has a right to attend the hearing at which a judge vacates the original sentence and resentences the defendant. “If the family members really want to share their opinions, then they’re welcome to, and we encourage that.”
Once Williams’ office has determined what it thinks is an appropriate sentence, it contacts the defendant’s counsel to negotiate, and then schedules a resentencing hearing.
In a case in which the prisoner received a reduced sentence under the laws passed to comply with Miller and the prisoner has already served the minimum sentence, the prisoner becomes eligible for parole. That was how Jones was able to gain his freedom.
“That’s really what the Montgomery decision talked about, providing hope to juvenile life without parolees,” said Hayes Hunt, Jones’ attorney. “Ultimately they in many ways punted that decision to a third party, which was the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole.”
Leo Dunn, chairman of the state Parole Board, said the board is handling juvenile lifer cases the way it would for a third-degree murder case.
Dunn said the board examines the original offenses, what the inmates have done while in prison in terms of rehabilitation, and whether they have they held jobs or earned degrees during their time behind bars. The board looks at any instances of misconduct and it considers the inmates’ plans for life after prison.
Most important, Dunn said, the board looks at the likelihood that the inmate might commit another crime. “I always think of it in this manner: Would I want this person living next to me, would I feel comfortable?” he said.
Over the last 14 years, Dunn said the board has paroled third-degree murderers on the first interview at a rate of 50 percent, and the recidivism rate for this class of inmate is 1.8 percent for a violent act and 11 percent for any other kind of crime. Recidivism for all inmates over a three-year period is 42 percent, Dunn said.
The board weighs all input during its hearings – letters from inmates’ families, Corrections Department officials, judges, district attorneys and victims’ families.
Dunn added that some victims’ family members even advocate for prisoners’ release. “Some of those statements have been very much in favor of the individual being paroled because they are no longer who they were 20 or 30 years ago,” Dunn said.
Jennifer Storm of the Victim Advocate’s Office is working to ensure that victims’ family members understand their rights in the resentencing and parole process. While she recognizes that there is a pocket of victims who have been able to forgive, and who even advocate for prisoners’ releases, she said those are the minority.
“For the majority of them it is excruciating,” she said. “It is having to relive a trauma they never wanted to revisit. They’re having to come back to a court system they thought they were done with.”
She said her office is looking into creating a curriculum for victims’ families to help guide them through this process.
“The vast majority of people we’re talking about, especially the people who are likely to get out in the relatively near future, have served decades in prison,” Wetzel said. “If they’re likely to get out, that means that they have been good citizens in our prisons. The question is, does that translate to them being good citizens in the community?”
With the outcome of the Batts case still pending, some attorneys are waiting on the court’s decision before they move forward with appeals and resentencings. Questions of who has the burden of proof and whether or not the inmate has a right to a jury during these proceedings are still up in the air, Bridge said. The Lancaster County District Attorney’s office, for example, has filed a motion to stay resentencing hearings in all of its juvenile life cases pending the Batts decision.
But as juvenile lifers begin to receive new sentences and find their way in the outside world, Wetzel said, the Corrections Department will keep an eye on how well inmates are adjusting. He recommends that they transition out of prison through halfway houses.
Though many of his peers looked to him as a trailblazer, Tyrone Jones says he is just focusing on taking things one day at a time and enjoying his new found freedom. At his sister’s home, he now has the chance to enjoy things that he couldn’t while he was in prison. Something as innocuous as seeing a deer wandering through the yard causes him to pause and take notice of the world around him.
“I would like to come to the colleges and speak to people, let them hear my story. I’d like to go into the school, speak to the younger kids. Let them know how my life was,” Jones said.
“It’s time for me to just settle down, live my life. Go be a productive member of society like everybody else.”
~ published 11.30.2016 ~